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Report on the Dismal Sv/anp Canal 

Ely Samuel Parker 






COL. ELY S. PARKER, A. . C., U. S. A. 







OctoJer 24, 1867. 

SIR : In compliance with Special Orders, No. 458, Headquarters of 
the Army, and with your letter of instructions dated October 5, 1867, I 
proceeded to Norfolk, Virginia, "for the purpose of instituting an 
examination into the condition of the Dismal Swamp Canal," and I now 
have the honor to submit the following report of its condition and its 
present and prospective value, all being the result of a careful personal 
inspection of the entire work : 

Originally this canal extended from Deep Creek, Norfolk county, Va., 
to a point on the Pasquotank, near South Mills, in North Carolina, a 
distance of 22 T 8 D 9 miles, and had six stone locks, two single and two 
combined. About the year 1840, the northern end of the canal was 
extended from Deep creek to the Elizabeth river, a distance of 2- i ^ } 3 5 miles, 
and a tide-lock put in at its terminus on the said river. Subsequently 
again, but previous to 1861, a further extension was made at the south 
end by cutting across a heavy bend of the Pasquotank river, a distance 
of 3 j^ miles, making its present length from the Elizabeth river to its 
terminus on the Pasquotank 28 T 9 2 C miles. This distance may be divided 
into five levels. Beginning at the north end, the first level runs from 
the Gilmorton lock to the combined locks at Deep creek. The next 
level extends to the Northwest lock, where the summit level is reached, 
making a lift or rise of 18J feet from the Elizabeth river to the summit. 
This summit is fed by a feeder from Lake Drummond. From this sum- 
; mit the next level extends to the South locks, from which a last descent 
I is made into the Pasquotank. The whole fall or descent from the sum- 
mit level to the Pasquotank is 17| feet. The different levels are in 
very bad condition, principally owing to the formation of frequent sand 
bars, mud sediments, and other obstructions, reducing the navigable 
stage of water in the summit level, at a fair stage of water in Lake Drum- 
mond, to less than four feet. In seasons of drought, navigation through 
the summit level is generally suspended for want of a requisite supply 


of water through the feeder. The prism of the canal varies in width at 
bottom from 20 to 25 feet, and at water surface from 35 to 40 feet. 

It was intended that the canal should carry 5-J feet depth of water, so 
as to pass boats having 5 feet draught. In its present condition this 
cannot be done. To carry out, therefore, the original intention, and 
put the present canal in condition to pass boats drawing 5 feet water, 
would require an average depth of cleaning out of the bottom of not 
less than one foot, throughout its entire length. This part of the work 
I estimate to cost $70, 000. 

Of the locks, all except the Gilmorton lock would have to be rebuilt. 
They number from the north, Gilmorton lock being No. 1, and was 
built in 1840 ; need not be rebuilt, but the gates will require frequent 
repairing. This lock will pass a boat 22| feet beam and 105 or 106 
feet long, and is the widest one on the canal. 

Locks 2 and 3, or the Deep Creek locks, are combined, and should be 
rebuilt entire. Originally constructed in 1818, these locks will only pass 
boats of 17 feet beam and 95 or 100 feet long. The earth bank in rear 
of the chamber walls, owing to the open joints of the face-work, which 
was originally laid in ordinary quick-lime, is constantly caving in, daily 
endangering the stability and continuance of the work. It should re- 
ceive immediate attention. 

The next structure is the Northwest lock, built in 1830. It will pass 
a boat of 21 J feet beam and about 100 feet long. The walls are in toler- 
able condition, but the banks and gates are bad, and the whole should 
be rebuilt. This lock is at the north end of the summit level. 

Culpepper lock is located at the south end of the summit level, and was 
built in 1820. The greatest width of boats this lock will pass is 16|- 
feet, and about 100 feet length. At present the gates are new, but the 
walls are in a miserably dilapidated condition. Many of the face-stone 
in the chamber are only seven inches square, and are fast tumbling out 
into the lock. This lock should be immediately rebuilt. 

The next structures are the combined South locks, built in 1835. 
Each will pass a boat of 21|- feet beam. The upper lock, however, will 
only admit a boat of 100 to 105 feet in length, while the lower one will 
pass one over 110 feet in length. A portion of the gates are good, but 
the mitre-sills and quoins of both locks, and the earth banks backing the 
main walls, are all in a very bad condition. The main walls, though in 
quite a fair condition, I do not regard as safe or good. 

In my opinion it is essentially necessary that all but the Gilmorton 
lock should be rebuilt in order to properly maintain the continuance oi 
this canal as a navigable highway. In the rebuilding, these structures 
should all be made of the size of the Gilmorton lock, which has the 
greatest breadth of chamber, but is a few feet shorter than the lowei 
South lock. No benefit arises to the navigation by having these locks 
of various sizes ; on the contrary it is a detriment. The enlargement of 
these locks might necessitate an increase in width of the prism of the 
canal, though this is not essential if the requisite depth can be obtained. 
These locks require pile foundations; and to obstruct the business of the 
canal as little as possible, they would require to be constructed to. one 
side of the present sites. To repair in the best manner possible the 
present locks would be but a temporary relief from present difficulties ; 
would be poor economy and bad engineering. 

My estimate for doing this work, as above suggested, is $120, 000. 
Most of the old stone can be used in the new work. 

There are also four single track swing-road bridges maintained by the 
canal, all of which require rebuilding. My estimate for said new 
bridges is 4, 000. 

There is a feeder from Lake Drummond which practically supplies all 
the water used by the canal. It is 3|- miles long, and has a feed and 
lift-lock one-half mile from its head. In seasons of drought it has not 
sufficient capacity to supply the canal, and as a consequence navigation 
is now and then suspended. This can only be remedied by deepening 
it, rebuilding a new lock with less lift, and cutting a channel farther 
into the lake, to get rid of a bad bar that has formed in the lake at the 
head of the feeder, and prevents a rapid and easy flow of water into the 
feeder. The lock is a dilapidated wooden structure, and is liable to fail 
at any moment, which would necessarily suspend operations on this 

My estimate for putting this feeder in good condition, upon its pres- 
ent plan, is $15,000. This line is used in connection with a slight canal 
running from the Lake to Suffolk, on the Nansemond river. 

The Northwest Canal is a lateral branch of the Dismal Swamp Canal, 
arid leaves the main trunk nearly one-half mile north of the Northwest 
lock. It runs in an easterly direction, and is finally emptied into the 
Northwest river, at a distance of GJ miles. The first lock is located 
about one mile from the main trunk, is a wooden structure, and in very 

bad condition. At the present time there is no navigation worth men- 
tioning below this point. Occasionally lighters or flat-boats of very 
light draught may pass. At the head of this lock is a very bad waste- 
Aveir. It is in such a poor condition that the slightest freshet may carry 
it out, and no water could pass the head of the canal for the levels north, 
and thus navigation be suspended, or at least be materially embarrassed. 
The Northwest river is one of the eastern outlets of Lake Drummond, 
and while the main canal cuts and takes in its waters on the west sides 
it revives itself in the drainage of the swamp upon the east side, becomes 
quite a river, and finally empties into Currituck Sound. This river in 
rainy seasons becomes easily overflowed, and when such an event occurs 
its surplus waters find their way over the banks into the canal below the 
above-named lock. They carry much debris and sand with them ; and 
this has been a fruitful cause of the lower part of this work filling up. 
The other two locks upon this canal are located near its entrance into 
the river. The entire lockage of the three locks is 14 T 7 4 fe'et. Since 
the opening of the Chesapeake and Albemarle Ship Canal the necessity 
of keeping this canal open seems to have ceased. It is not in itself a 
paying canal, and never will be. Before the opening of a competing 
route it accommodated the people of this particular region, and was a 
good feeder of freight to the Dismal Swamp route. It is a question of 
moment to determine whether an extensive outlay of money should be 
made to maintain 6J miles of unprofitable canal, or whether it would 
not be wiser to abandon it, and leave the people to use the Northwest 
river, as heretofore. My estimate to deepen this canal, rebuild the 
locks and other necessary structures, is $30,000. 

There are other incidental structures connected with this entire canal 
such as waste-weirs, lock-houses, and the repair and maintenance of the 
Deep Creek dam which adds expense to those sums already specified, 
the aggregate of which may be put down at $20,000. 

I have been thus particular in giving a detailed account of the vari- 
ous parts of the work, so that the honorable Secretary of the Treasury 
may have every necessary fact before him to determine the various ques- 
tions submitted to me. I have shown the present condition of the work. 
My estimates of repairing the several parts of the canal, and putting 
the whole in a good as well as permanent navigable condition, may seem 
at first glance too liberal, but from the present high rates of living and 
prices of labor, and more especially the difficult nature of the country 

in which this work is located, I am fully satisfied that it will cost every 
cent of my estimate. To the estimates herewith submitted should be 
added the approximate indebtedness of the Canal Company, which is 
about $96,000, making an aggregate of $355,000 as the sum immedi- 
ately required for the uses and improvement of this canal. 

During the past season the Canal Company have had examinations 
made with a view of improving still more the navigation of this route, 
by enlarging the canal to 68 feet water surface and 8 feet depth. The 
estimated cost of the improvement is over $600,000. 

I have not thought it necessary to report any views I might entertain 
upon the subject of enlargement, non have I discussed the advantages 
claimed by some of the necessity of cutting down and dispensing with 
the present summit level, with a view of getting more water from the 
lake. To do this would involve a yet additional expenditure to those 
specified as necessary to make the present canal good. This project 
embraces a consideration which I am not aware has yet been satisfac- 
torily settled. It is this : whether in depressing the canal and increas- 
ing the fall from the lake, the porous, spongy nature of the surface soil 
of the Dismal Swamp would not permit the lake to drain itself to the 
new level of the canal, and thus defeat the object of the depression of 
the high level. It is known that the whole surface of these swamps is 
of a loose, porous nature, resembling the general character of commer- 
cial peat, and if a low drain is cut through such soil it will certainly 
leave the surface dry. I am not prepared to say that this result would 
follow if the summit level were depressed, but the question is presented 
as one entitled to consideration. It would be highly advantageous to 
this navigation if a greater head of water could be had in the feeder to 
supply the summit level. 

The history, business, and financial condition of this canal are so well 
set forth in the papers I had the honor to receive from your Department, 
and which are herewith returned, that it is unnecessary for me to 
repeat them. The report of John Kimball and Jno. Jay Knox, dated 
April 23, 1866, is particularly noticeable upon these points. By that 
report and the books of the Company, the amount of money put 
into this work since its inception in 1787 to the present time has been 
over one and one-quarter million of dollars, and yet it is not in good 
condition and requires large expenditures of money to be made at once 
to save the large amount already invested and maintain the continuance 


of this important navigable highway. The profits of all public works 
generally depend upon the amount of traffic they can command and con- 
trol, the expenses of their maintenance and management. Now, it can- 
not be doubted that Eastern Virginia, below Norfolk, and Eastern North 
Carolina must for a long time be dependent for their development and 
improvement upon water transportation. The swampy character of and 
the numerous streams in the county -will, for years, prevent the construc- 
tion and successful operation of railroads. I cannot say what area of 
country is open to a communication with Norfolk and other points on the 
Atlantic coast north by the construction of the Dismal Swamp and 
Chesapeake and Albemarle Canals. It may, however, be within bounds 
to estimate the region of country to 10,000 or 15,000 square miles. 
The soil yields abundant crops of corn, wheat, potatoes, cotton, and 
other products. Large amounts of naval stores consumed mostly by the 
United States, large quantities of lumber, shingles, staves, and timber 
are also produced in this region. The fisheries of this section are also 
quite a source of traffic. Until the completion of the Albemarle and 
Chesapeake Sfrip Canal, most of the articles above named found their 
way into the northern markets through the Dismal Swamp Canal. But 
since that canal has been opened, which is a rival route and of much 
larger capacity, and the continued deterioration of the Dismal Swamp 
Canal in every branch of its construction, much of the trade has been 
diverted to the new route, and the old canal must eventually lose all 
its trade unless something is immediately done to restore the same to 
good navigable condition. During the war the trade of both canals was 
practically suspended. In 1866 the toll receipts on the Dismal Swamp 
Canal were $1,415; in 1867, $8,615. Its usual current expenses are 
from $6,000 to $8,000. 

The receipts of the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal for 1866 were 
about $52,000; in 1867, $59,500. There passed over this canal in 
1867, boats of all kinds, 4,243. I was unable to obtain the number 
that passed through the Dismal Swamp route for the year ending Sep- 
tember 30, 1867. 

The business of the South has been slowly reviving since the close of 
the war, and there is every reason to hope that it will greatly increase as 
governments and societies become once more settled and permanently 
established. With it will come an urgent demand for good, rapid, and 
direct routes of communication to the great commercial marts of the 

country. The Dismal Swamp Canal is an already-established route, 
but, as will be perceived, a large outlay is required to put it in a condi- 
tion to meet the increasing wants of the country. There has been already 
more money sunk in it than the other canal cost, and it is paying much 
less interest on the investment. It becomes, then, a simple question of 
finance, whether the Government will retain its stock and put in more 
money to keep open and maintain this route of navigation. 

My own conviction is, that this route can and should be maintained. 
It is the outlet of a large section of rich country. But I believe it can 
only be successfully managed by a responsible private corporation, who, 
themselves or by their agents having an interest, would be constantly on 
the ground to manage and improve it. The United States, by disposing 
of its stock, would have the same advantage as private individuals, to 
use either of the two routes in the movement of its stores, troops, or 
munitions of war. I do not see that Government has now any special 
privileges on account of owning stock in this canal, though it may 
have had at some earlier day. 

I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant, 

Col. and A. D. C., U. S. A. 


Secretary of the Treasury. 


This book is DUE on the last date stamped below 

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2-1,1-10. '41(2191) 




Monufoclurtd b U 


Syracuse, N. Y. 

Stockton, Calif. 



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